About: Ilona Bray

Ilona Bray is a former attorney and the author of several Nolo immigration books. Her working background includes both solo immigration practice and working or volunteering as an immigration attorney with nonprofit organizations in Seattle and California.

Recent Posts by Ilona Bray

Dear Right-Wing Media: Stop Panicking, New Citizens Could Always Claim Conscientious Objector Status

saluteTo see the recent spate of articles, you’d think President Obama himself had just waved his hand and told all green card holders who are becoming naturalized U.S. citizens that they could skip that pesky part of the Oath of Allegiance where they promise to bear arms on behalf of the United States. Here are some of the recent headlines:

One has to wonder whether the pundits who write this nonsense get some sort of satisfaction from stirring up panic, because what they’re saying is simply not true. And I don’t mean “not true” in the sense that the issue is more nuanced than it first appears, or that with a little sympathy toward immigrants you’d see it another way, I mean NOT TRUE. At all.

I’ll try to keep this simple. Successful applicants for U.S. citizenship must take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States. That oath includes a statement that they’ll willingly bear arms on behalf of the U.S. if asked. For as many years as I’ve been practicing law, they’ve been allowed to request an exemption from the “bear arms” portion of the oath based on religious, ethical, or moral principles.

Notice I said request — USCIS could always deny it if the agency didn’t believe that the person really held said beliefs.

And the change? There really isn’t any. USCIS simply clarified, in a Policy Alert, that no, you don’t need to be a member of a particular religion to make this request, and no, you don’t have to prove said membership. No big deal — unless you’re someone who was worried that you’d be blocked from U.S. citizenship because your honest beliefs forbid you from taking up arms against your fellow man. In that case, you might be relieved to know that USCIS will give your request to take a modified oath serious consideration, though it might still deny it. (And you should also know that you cannot opt out of the portion of the oath in which you promise to perform noncombatant services on behalf of the U.S. if asked.)

I have no illusions that this humble blog will stop the tide of panic. Maybe Snopes will have better luck — the misunderstandings are so over the top that even this myth-debunking website felt the need to weigh in!

One last observation: The first article linked to above ended with the following statement: “It should be noted the Islamic terrorist Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, who killed four Marines and a Navy sailor in Chattanooga last week, was a naturalized citizen.”

It should be noted why, exactly? Is that little factoid supposed to make us more outraged that some new citizens won’t be joining our military and handed deadly weapons? With that level of suspicion about naturalized citizens, I would think saying yes to the ones who want to stay home and sit out any war would be a fine option.

New Fundraising Method? Check Collection Box for Rare Coins!

coinsCollecting a few pennies at a time doesn’t sound like the most effective way to raise money for charity.

But if you leave that coin donation box out long enough, the money will add up — and better yet, you might encounter some luck of the sort reportedly experienced by the Royal Berkshire Hospital recently.

A seemingly humble 2p piece in its coin donation box turned out to be a rarity (printed in silver rather than bronze, oops). A sharp-eyed volunteer noticed the oddity, and called an auction house. The coin ultimately sold for £802.03, a whopping 40,101 times its face value.

So there you have it; your fundraising lesson for the day. But actually, there are a few additional lessons to be learned from this story.

One is the value of volunteers, who bring fresh energy and knowledge into an organization. (Would a tired staffer emptying the box have noticed that a single coin in the pile was the wrong color?) See Nolo’s articles on “Volunteers and Your Nonprofit” for guidance on utilizing this resource.

Another is the value of publicity. I’ll bet the media outlets that reported on this weren’t tracking the auction house, but got word from the charity itself. And now you, I, and everyone reading the press coverage have heard of the Royal Berkshire Hospital. So if something similarly fun or interesting happens at your nonprofit, don’t be shy — call the press!

Selling While Still Living in Home? Cleanup Becomes a Family Affair

coffee cupAsk any real estate agent: Moving out of a house before trying to sell it is the optimal arrangement, both for aesthetic reasons (you can clean and even “stage” it) and for your own convenience during open houses and showings.

But that arrangement isn’t always possible. Particularly if you need to get the money out of your current house before moving on to a new one, you may need to juggle living in your home with presenting it as a commodity for sale.

That creates a challenge: How do you make your house look its best while you’re still having to cook, get ready for work every day, let the kids and pets play inside and outside, and so on?

It can be done. Dare we say, it should be done, because home buyers will be more interested, and therefore potentially pay more, for a house that looks like their dream future rather than like the aftermath of the tornado of everyday life. It’s no coincidence that one of the first things a home stager will recommend is to declutter. No matter what furniture, art, and elegant touches your home contains (or will contain, when the stager is done with it), all of that becomes irrelevant if buried under mounds of toys and dirty laundry.

So, let’s say you’ve cleaned your house, packed up the extras in prep for selling/moving, and perhaps even hired a stager to make it look fabulous. How do you maintain it day to day?

As real estate agent Leslie Sargent Eskildsen reminds us in her blog titled, “If you’re selling your home, you need to hide this ‘evidence’,” “you need to have a plan for handling normal, everyday occurrences.” And as she further explains, that often requires getting the whole family on board, and even assigning tasks.

With regard to pets, for instance, she says, “Who’s on back yard poop pick up? Who’s on kitty litter box rotation? Who’s cleaning the fish tank?”. By deciding on and handling such issues in advance, you’ll avoid last-minute panics when a real estate calls and says, “Can I bring my clients by in five minutes?”

There are, after all, many tasks that simply can’t be done with a mere few minutes’ warning. In fact, Leslie delivers some advice that might be hard for some to take: No garlic cooking in the kitchen until the house is sold. None. (But you can bake all the chocolate chip cookies you want, she says. I’ll be apple pie would pass muster, too.)

For more information on getting your home ready to attract buyers, see Selling Your House: Nolo’s Essential Guide.

People Buy for the House, But Leave Due to Difficult Neighbors

dogcatIt shouldn’t surprise us, but this quote from Rhonda Duffy, an Atlanta real estate agent who has sold more than 17,000 homes, is a bit of a bombshell nonetheless:

“The No. 1 reason people move – besides downsizing or upsizing — is because they don’t like their neighbors.” (See “Check neighborhood before buying house,” by Marni Jameson, June 29, 2015.)

Her phrase “don’t like” is probably an understatement. Ask any homeowner about relations with neighbors. For every tale of casseroles and newfound bookclub comrades, there will be at least one about a vendetta, civil restraining order, or all-around craziness. I know someone whose mentally ill neighbor delivered a live cat to her front doorstep in a box, telling her that it was her “daughter” and she needed to start taking care of it.

A number of the neighbor-related Q&As you’ll find on Nolo’s website come from actual, real-life fact patterns. Check out these doozies, for instance, “My neighbor shot my dog for trespassing. What can I do?,” “What should I do if I think my neighbor is stealing my Wi-Fi?,” and “Can I file a small claims court action against a neighbor who trespassed on and damaged my property?“.

The possibility for neighbor disputes is approximately the last thing anyone wants to think about during the excitement of homebuying. As if it weren’t enough to make sure that the home passes inspection, appraises for the right amount, and is within one’s financial means.

But there’s obviously a reason that at least one state includes a “neighborhood review contingency” in its standard real estate contract. A homeowner is at relatively close quarters with neighbors, and might see them every day. If said neighbors are dealing drugs, making noise, leaving piles of garbage or junk out, and so on, it’s going to directly affect your enjoyment of life.

Fortunately, even without a clause in your purchase contract, prospective homebuyers can do a lot to research neighbor issues before buying. Driving and walking around the neighborhood at different hours of the day or night is a good start, as is chatting with as many neighbors as possible in the vicinity of the home you hope to buy.

We also suggest asking the seller about neighbor issues, as described in Nolo’s (free!) “Questions for Seller” worksheet. And for more tips on this and other aspects of choosing a home, see Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home.

“Sanctuary” Cities Aren’t What They Sound Like

sf aerialTo hear the media tell it, you’d think that various cities around America were, for undocumented immigrants, like home base in a game of tag — just show up and you’re free, untouchable by law enforcement authorities. Such has been the rhetoric since the awful murder of Kathryn Steinle, killed on July 2 in San Francisco, apparently by a five-time deportee from Mexico.

For instance, the BBC News said that “San Francisco’s ‘sanctuary’ law means city authorities don’t co-operate with immigration officials,” the Associated Press referred to them as “cities that harbor immigrants in the U.S. illegally,” and CBS News quoted Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as saying, “I don’t think you can have whole cities or whole states just not obeying the law.”

No, no, and no. As usual for anything having to do with immigration law, so-called “sanctuary” is a lot more complicated than that.

First off, sanctuary cities don’t shield anyone from federal law enforcement. Immigration enforcement agents have the same powers in a sanctuary city as they do elsewhere. They can arrest and deport people in the U.S. unlawfully — in fact, no one can figure out why they didn’t arrest and deport Steinle’s alleged killer, rather than turning him over to local authorities for prosecution on an ancient drug charge.

Second, San Francisco’s sanctuary law is plenty strict on the topic of dealing with immigrants who have committed serious crimeS — it says, “Nothing in this Chapter shall prohibit, or be construed as prohibiting, a law enforcement officer from identifying and reporting any person pursuant to State or federal law or regulation who is in custody after being booked for the alleged commission of a felony. . . .”

What is a sanctuary city, then? In most cases, the purpose of local sanctuary laws is twofold:

  1. to draw a dividing line between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement, such that police and the like don’t automatically report or turn over undocumented immigrants, for the very important reason that, if they did, members of the immigrant community would simply stop calling the police, leading to a RISE in crime, and
  2. to prevent the sort of Constitutional violation that can all too easily occur when federal authorities expect local jails to simply detain people for unspecified lengths of time AFTER the 48-hour period during which they MUST hold an undocumented immigrant if requested to do so by federal authorities.

For a full, well-researched and reasoned discussion of the sanctuary laws and the Steinle case, I refer you to Cesar Cuahtemoc’s discussion on his CrImmigration blog.

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